How to handle common health problems in older dogs

With the help of Petplan vet expert Brian Faulkner, we provide insight into eight common health problems in older dogs.

There’s a lot to enjoy about sharing your life with an older dog but senior dogs can also suffer from age-related health conditions and behaviour changes. Here are eight of the most common older dog health issues, including the signs to look for and what to do next.


Arthritis happens when the cartilage between the bones becomes damaged, causing pain. It’s more common in large breeds such as Labradors, German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers.

Know the signs

Dogs are good at hiding pain, so while your dog may seem less excited about their daily walk, owners rarely know the full degree of discomfort their dog may be in. Watch for a limp, difficulty getting up and stiffness.

What to do

Arthritis can’t be cured but it can be managed. You could try adjusting your dog’s diet to help them lose weight and ease the pressure on their joints, while also introducing supplements such as glucosamine. You can try adapting your home so that your dog can get around more easily, as well as taking shorter walks rather than one big daily walk. Complementary therapies – such as acupuncture or massage – can also help.

Your vet may also recommend non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, as well as other modern forms of pain management injections.

Gastro-intestinal problems

Diarrhoea can be caused by a wide range of issues, from eating something that upsets their stomach to a change in diet. Some medical issues such as pancreatitis and liver disease can also cause problems with your older dog’s digestive system.

Know the signs

Look out for changes to your dog’s usual toileting habits, such as straining to defecate, diarrhoea or strange-coloured poop. Changes to your dog’s drinking habits can also indicate underlying health issues.

What to do

You can help your dog by feeding them a bland diet, including food such as chicken and rice, and giving them access to fresh, clean water at all times so they stay hydrated. You can also try giving them some (vet-approved) probiotics to increase the good bacteria within their gut.

If symptoms persist, schedule a check-up with your vet, who’ll examine your dog and may recommend further tests, medication or changes to your dog’s diet.

Skin allergies

These can affect dogs of any age, but your dog may develop an allergy as they get older. Skin allergies are caused by allergens from fleas, food or airborne sources such as pollen, dust and mould.

Know the signs

Watch for excessive scratching, irritated skin and hot spots. Allergies can also cause red and itchy skin plus secondary skin or ear infections.

What to do

Small adjustments – such as changing your dog’s diet or giving them vet-approved antihistamines – can help with certain allergies. It’s always best to consult your vet so that they can examine your dog and conduct any tests to determine the cause of any allergies. They’ll then recommend treatment, which may include preventative flea treatment, a limited-ingredient diet, regular baths with medicated shampoo or immunotherapy.

Lameness and stiffness

While this can be a sign of arthritis, it can also be linked to other underlying problems such as ruptured ligaments, back pain or bone tumours. Spondylosis, a form of spinal arthritis, can also cause changes to your dog’s gait. 

Know the signs

Watch for any signs of pain in one or more legs. Your dog may appear stiff on rising or weak in the hind legs, or walk with one paw turned under itself.

What to do

Schedule a vet appointment so the underlying cause of lameness can be determined. Your vet can then develop an appropriate treatment plan.

Dental conditions

Dental problems are very common in older dogs, who can suffer from gingivitis or tooth decay.

Know the signs

Watch out for bad breath, excessive drooling and changes to your dog’s usual eating habits. If you can, check your dog’s teeth and gums for any signs of plaque or redness.

What to do

Try adjusting your dog’s diet or brushing their teeth more often – you could even try dog mouthwash! You could also buy specially-formulated chew toys that are designed to clean a dog's teeth as they chew on them.

If you’re still concerned, take your dog to the vet so that they can examine your dog’s mouth to confirm the cause of any problems. They may recommend treatment such as teeth cleaning under anaesthesia or tooth extraction.

Sight loss

Both gradual and sudden sight loss can affect elderly dogs. While this can be concerning, most partially-sighted dogs become adept at finding their way around, with a little help.

Know the signs

Cloudy or milky eyes can indicate cataracts or diabetes. Glaucoma (which is caused by a painful increase of the pressure inside the eye) is harder to notice but can cause redness and pain. Your dog may move more hesitantly, seem disoriented or startle when approached.

What to do

A dog who is losing their sight can be easily disorientated. Help them out by giving them a safe, quiet space to retreat to and sticking to a consistent daily routine. Keeping your home clear of any clutter or obstacles that they may trip over can also help them, as will speaking to them often so that they know you are nearby.

Some conditions need medical treatment, so it’s important to speak to your vet as soon as possible to confirm the cause of any sight loss.

Hearing loss

Temporary hearing loss can be caused by infections or ear wax, but older dogs can also develop permanent deafness.

Know the signs

Your dog may stop responding to commands, sleep through loud noises or become startled when you approach them from behind. They may also seem disoriented or unbalanced.

What to do

You may need to adapt your routine by teaching your dog hand signals or keeping them on the lead when on walks. If your dog is sleeping, be careful when you approach them and take care when strangers or children interact with them. Vibrating collars can also help to catch your dog’s attention.

Finally, be sure to also book a check-up with your vet to confirm the cause of hearing loss.


Older dogs can lose mental function and memory capacity as they age, a process known as canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) or dementia. It can start as early as eight years old, although onset is usually around 11.

Know the signs

Your dog may seem confused, bark more than normal or just act out of character. Pacing, walking in circles, toileting accidents and fearful behaviour are indicators.

What to do

There’s no cure for canine CDS but medication, supplements and dietary adjustments can help. Support your dog by keeping them stimulated with toys, short walks and plenty of gentle interaction. Maintaining regular feeding times and a calm home environment, especially at night, can also help. Your vet may also recommend an MRI scan.

Do you have any tips to keep senior dogs happy and healthy? Head over to our Facebook page and join in the conversation.

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